Thursday, June 29, 2006
The other day, I received an email titled: "Garada Found". In the email was just a link - nothing else. No explanation. I clicked on the link at it was a press release from ToyboxDX and it announced that just a couple of weeks ago, a Garada K7 Japanese toy was found and auctioned on Yahoo! Japan for the staggering price of $1.7 million yen or just under $15,000 USD!! The email evoked a conversation I had just last year. I first heard of the Garada K7 from Mark Nagata when I was writing about his Holy Grail, the Red Ultraman. At the time, I remember Mark saying that the Garada K7 was almost mythical in terms of it's existence. No one really knew how many exist and that there are only one or two known specimens. I even referenced the rarity of the Garada K7 in another post on the Japanese Vintage Toy Magazine Super7. For the hardcore Japanese toy collectors, the Garada K7 is THE holiest of grails. If you are Indiana Jones, The Garada K7 is the Ark of the Convenant.
You might be asking yourself "What the Hell is a Garada K7 and why is it so special?" Well, think back to your earlier years if you will...You might remember those 2' foot tall plastic robots called "Shogun Warriors" back in the day. They were the American version of what are called Jumbo Machinders released by a Japanese toy company called Popy. Jumbo Machinders were toys representing Robots like MazingerZ from the 70's live-action TV shows. In 1973, the Jumbos were first released by Popy and included nine villians (ten villians if you include the Garada, but it was years later before confirmation that the Garada went into production) . But at 2' tall, these plastic toys are pretty big and did not last long in Japanese households where space of is at a premium. Hell, I had a Raideen Shogun Warrior when I was a kid and I threw it out because it took up too much space! It's not like you're gonna put it on a shelf - it's too tall. If you leave it on the ground like I did, it gets in the way and eventually finds itself in the trash can! The other interesting aspect contributing to the Garada's rarity is that back in the 70's, all the kids wanted the heroic robots like MazingerZ. Nobody wanted to buy the villians. Who wants the villians? Villians are BAD guys! As a result, since there was not much demand, Popy didn't make that many Villian Jumbo Machinders. Worse, the Garada K7 was the most EVIL looking villian amongst the nine villians! He had a skull-head with sickles for ears! To try and make Garada less frightening to the kiddies, you can see that they changed his face color and even tried to make his mouth look less like a skull! Suffice to say, there was ZERO demand for the Garada K7 when it first came out. The guy that designed it was probably fired from his job. All of these factors have culminated over the years to provide for one of, if not the most sought after Japanese toy in history. You see, fast forward 20 years to the 90's and all the Japanese toy collectors wanted Jumbo Machinders of any kind because of their rarity. Of course, amongst the most rare are the ten villians that no one wanted to buy back in the 70's and lastly, the most rare and most sought-after villian is the Garada K7. The villians include: four villains from Kamen Rider V3 (Kame Bazooka, Hasami Jaguar, Taihou Buffalo and Lensari) and six from Mazinger Z. (Garada K7, Dabulas M2, Rokuron Q9, Kingdan X10, Spartan K5 and Guren Ghost C3)
So who would spend $15k on a toy that was probably thrown in the trash 30+ years ago?? I read in the ToyboxDX press release that, surprisingly, what could be considered a Japanese national treasure, was won by American collector Tom Franck. This auction ended a 13-year grail quest including 7 trips to Japan to search for this toy. Tom is well-known in the Japanese toy collecting circles and this acqusition has elevated him to celebrity toy collector status. He is owner of only one of three known Garada K7 to exist in the world and the only owner outside of Japan.
I emailed Tom to congratulate him on his victory and asked him for an interview for toybot studios. Tom was gracious enough to spend over an hour with me over the phone. His views on toy collecting and the hunt for the Garada K7 are quite captivating and would make for a great documentary. Before we got into the Garada story, Tom wanted to know a bit about me and what I collected. Although I've collected Japanese toys for the last 15 years or so, as a result of starting this blog, I have really only been "in the toy scene" if you will, for less than a year. Where my friends and family think i'm a completely hardcore Japanese toy collector, compared to most "real" toy collectors, i'm really a baby at all this. The guys that I have been writing about and interviewing are truly hardcore. They have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on rare Japanese toys. Inevitably, whenever you do meet a toy collector, the first question out of their mouth is: "What do you collect?" It's a very fair question. It's a bit like asking "What do you do?" Asking what one collects gives the asker a frame of reference for where to take the conversation. Whereas 95% of the toy collectors out there buy Star Wars or comic book Superhero figures from Wallmart, i've found that the other 5% that make up the rest of us toy collectors are relatively specific in what they collect.
Tom asked me this question right up front and I told him that I like newer mecha and mini figures. He was very kind and said: "It's good to hear about what people collect these days" He was being nice because I have found that hardcore Japanese toy collectors all collect vintage toys. He then elaborated on this subject and gave me a very interesting perspective on why this is the case. Tom mentioned that at some point, collecting toys boils down to making choices. This is funny, because Brian Flynn from Super7 said the exact same thing. Tom explained that after a while of collecting the new stuff, it becomes un-managable. How does one keep up and buy all the new toys that come out constantly? There is so much new stuff coming out all the time and it's endless! Bandai alone has probably a gazillion Gundam toy lines alone! So, unless you are super wealthy, you have to make choices as to what you are going to buy. So, you think to yourself the new stuff is probably going to be available for a while, so if you have the choice to buy something rare and not likely to be around for long, Tom suggests you are more likely to buy the rare toy knowing you can get the new stuff anytime you want to.
This makes sense. Although I still buy new toys, I recently sought out a sort of rare Fewture Black Getter Ryoma figure which was limited to a production run and color variant of only 500 pieces. Tom suggests that as this train of thought progresses, serious toy collectors will only seek out the ultra-rare toys. Like in any collecting, there is a bit of pride that goes with owning the most rare and complete collection. I think what Tom was suggesting that if I were to continue collecting toys, that I too, may eventually only search for and collect the rare specimens. This may well end up being true. Funny enough, there is a certain Gundam Ultimate Operation line that I do collect regularly. I found the website in Japanese and learned that there were a ton of figures released in the past that I would love to get my grubby hands on. I even released a toybot studios Bounty Hunt earlier this year for some of these figures. Recently, it got to the point where I contacted an agent in Japan to help me track down these lost trading figures. Alas, both efforts have come up fruitless. I see a bit about what Tom is referring to. It's the thrill of the hunt, the "archeology" of researching, searching, and looking for specific toys that are no longer available. Will I end up going to Japan to look for these toys? Yes, definitely!
I then asked Tom a bit about his toy collecting career and what has changed in Japanese toy collecting over the years. For many of us children of the 80's, collecting Japanese toys is about re-claiming our childhood. For me, I've always wanted to recreate that sense of awe that I experienced as a kid walking into the Japanese toy store and gasping as row upon row of glass shelves filled with toys were in front of me. For Tom, who has been collecting toys consistently since childhood, he was into Shogun Warriors of course, Micronauts, but interestingly not into Star Wars, GoBots or Transformers. "GoBots and Transformers look great as vehicles, but not so great as robots." I too, am not a particular fan of Transformers, but I think the throngs of fanatical TFormer collectors out there will hopefully just gently disagree. No hate mail! How about this, I have just pre-ordered my first Transformers!! Am I cool now???
Tom goes on to say that Japanese toys in the 70's were all about the materials: sturdy, heavy die-cast. Whereas Japanese toys in the 80's were all about gimmicks like transforming and what-not. Japanese toy collecting in the 80's and 90's was a lot different then today. Back in the day, before the internet, collecting Japanese toys was really more exciting. No one had seen any of these Japanese toys before or really knew anything about it. You see a Japanese robot in the store that imports toys and you really like it, but you begin to ask questions like: "Are there more like this in different colors? What about different versions? Didn't this guy have a partner, where is he? What other toys are in this line?
Back in the early to mid 90's, Japanese toy collecting was all about the hardcore flying to Japan for the annual Superfestival toy show. Americans, Europeans and guys from Hong Kong decended upon the land of the rising sun like locusts devouring all the rare vintage toys for their own collections or to bring back and sell to the poor saps that couldn't make it to Japan. Tom remembers fondly as you would get to Japan a couple of days before the show and hit a few stores just to wet the appetite, but you didn't want to blow any serious cash as you needed to reserve your cash for what might be found at the show. You would get there early and make your initial lap around the show tables. You had serious decisions to make at every turn because if you didn't pick up that vintage toy, it probably would be gone next time around. The inventory would change with every step as the dealers kept on bringing more toys from their vans.
Today, for better or worse, the Japanese vintage toy market is really the internet. While Superfestival certainly continues today and is much larger in scope, most of the toys sold today are all the new stuff. "There is no reason to go to Japan to find these toys any longer...they are pretty much there right in front of you on your computer". This is due in large part to Yahoo! Japan. Yahoo! Japan controls the Japanese toy market, not eBay. Tom argues that while the internet is certainly a more efficient means to find and buy vintage Japanese toys, the flipside is that there is greater competition for the same item from millions of desktops and browsers all over the world.
Back in 1993, Tom first heard about Jumbo Machinder villains. He Didn’t know villians even existed. One of his toy buddies mentioned the Two headed guy, Doublas M2. What about skull-headed guy – Garada K7? Did they make him into a Jumbo? How do we find out? Where can we look? Who can we call? I asked Tom what is the attraction to Jumbos Machinders? I remember when Shogun Warriors came out in the 80's, I thought they were kinda cool, I think my mom got me Raideen which still to this day in one of my favorite robots, but I did not strive to collect them. Back then, I was much more into the smaller die-cast toys. To this day, I remember a friend receiving the full set of Go Rangers die-cast motorcycle and side car vehicles for his birthday that spoiled bastard. I wanted them so bad, I almost stole them from him. This set today is very expensive, but the funny thing is that for some reason, I don't have any urge to own it. To me, it now looks very dated and un-sophisticated. Tom helped me to understand his love for Jumbos. To Tom, when you get a shelf full of MacFarlane toys together, it looks pretty messy. Because they are so hyper-detailed, everything visually just kinda blurs together. "With Jumbos, the Army Aesthetic is very strong!" Army Aesthetic?? What the hell is that?? The Army Aesthetic is when you line up all the Jumbos next to each other and they look like a row of futuristic soldiers. The clean, simple lines of the Jumbos help to reinforce a strong Army Aesthetic that is very pleasing to the eye.
Tom first received a picture in 1994 of a prototype Garada K7 from a friend in Hong Kong. Tom now knew it existed at least in prototype. He Started calling toy stores in Japan to see if anyone had a Garada K7. Tom became friends with one store owner who spoke great english, Ken Saeki. Tom actually went to Japan 7 times from 1996 to 1999 looking for the Garada K7. Each time searching toy store after toy store, he came across alot of ghost stories, but no one in Japan had actually even seen one!
Toy store owner Ken Saeki helped Tom look for Garada in Japan. He actually found all other nine villians, which in itself is very difficult, but he could not find the Garada. Ken was now part of the grail hunt as well. He's Japanese, speaks the language, lives in Japan and is in the toy business! Certainly if he could find the other extremely rare vilians, he could find the Garada!!?? Nope. Ken couldn't find it either. It was at this point that Tom realized how rare the Garada K7 really was.
In 1999, Tom received a call from another legendary toy collector, Matt Alt. Matt was shown a picture of a Garada K7 and it was not a prototype. A big Japanese toy scholar, Koji Igarashi showed the picture to Matt in a bar in Japan. It was an actual picture of his friend's Garada K7. This Picture eventually showed up on the internet, but the mysterious owner didn’t want to sell it. For Tom, this revelation was a relief that the Garada really existed in production form and that if one existed, there probably was more. Then, two workers that were going through a Bandai warehouse found another Garada which was put up in the Bandai museum in 2003.They actually had no idea how rare this toy was and were hanging it from wire in the balcony! As they finally realized that this was one of the rarest toys on the planet, they then gave it a proper glass case where hardcore, devoted toy collectors to this day, still fly to Japan to see.
Now Tom knows that 2 exist, but he's still not sure if it went into full production. Then, suddenly in 2005, the first Garada K7 speciman went on auction on Mandarake which is a large toy store chain in Japan. It was Koji’s friend, the mysterious toy scholar with the picture of the Garada in the bar. The Starting bid was $2.5 Million yen which is around $25k USD. Tom thought long and hard about it, but it was too much. Tom was hoping that nobody would bid on the Garada and that the price would be lowered for new opening bids. Unfortunately for Tom, someone did bid on it and it was gone. Just like that. Tom had the chance to buy his holy grail of toys and he let it slip through his fingers.
Fast forward to today. Just a few short weeks ago, a second Garada K7 specimen was found in a dusty attic in Japan. The owner had no idea what it was and did not properly label the huge find on Yahoo! Japan. Luckily Tom has plenty of toy karma saved up over the years searching for the Garada. A friend in Japan saw the auction listing and asked Tom how much he was willing to pay for the Garada. Tom said he would be willing to go as high as $1.75 million yen which is around $15k USD. This was higher than what his friend was willing to bid, so he graciously stepped aside to let Tom bid. There were a number of other complications to bid on the toy, but eventually with a lot of help from many friends in Japan, it all worked out and Tom finally did find and buy his holy grail of toys.
I asked Tom how it felt to finally finish a quest that he's been on for so long. He replied that he's now looking down at the mountain instead of up. "There is Garada K7, and then there’s everything else".
Congratulations again Tom! What an incredible story!
UPDATE!!!!! July 6, 2006: Tom sent me an email with an update on the origins of the infamous Garada K7 he acquired: "A couple of days ago, the seller of the Garada finally left positive feedback for the woman who's account I used to bid. Also, the seller sent an email following up on questions we asked about where the Garada came from. She got it at a flea market. She asked the seller at the flea market where he got it and he couldn't remember."
Just goes to show you one man's junk is another man's treasure!!!